UAW scores historic landslide victory to unionize the first foreign automaker in the US

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The UAW made American labor history Friday with its biggest organizing win in decades when workers at the Volkswagen Chattanooga plant in Tennessee voted to join the union.

The National Labor Relations Board said the vote was 2,628-985, or 73% approval, in voting that ended at 8 p.m. Friday.

"In a historic victory, an overwhelming majority of Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, have voted to join the UAW," union spokesman Jonah Furman wrote in a media statement as the vote-counting was still wrapping up. "... The outcome is clear: Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga are the first Southern autoworkers outside of the Big Three to win their union."

An aerial view of the Volkswagen Chattanooga plant in Tennessee where workers will start voting April 17, 2024 on whether or not to unionize.
An aerial view of the Volkswagen Chattanooga plant in Tennessee where workers will start voting April 17, 2024 on whether or not to unionize.

After the vote, UAW President Shawn Fain told reporters at the plant that their decision reflects the fact that working-class people are “fed up with being left behind” and living paycheck-to-paycheck.

"This gives workers everywhere else the indication that it's OK and it can be done," Fain said about organizing the VW plant. "All we heard for years is that we can't do this in the South. And you can. Workers can do it. It's time for workers to take more control of their lives. The only way they can take control of their work lives is by forming a union."

In a statement, VW confirmed the union's victory and said 3,613 votes were cast, which is 83.5% of employees who were eligible to vote.

"Volkswagen thanks its Chattanooga workers for voting in this election," the company said in a statement.

It was another big win for Fain, building on the momentum of 25% raises won last fall after a 46-day strike against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, Detroit-rooted automakers with long union histories. In February, the UAW announced it would commit $40 million to organize workers at nonunion facilities and battery plants.

The UAW had twice tried and failed to organize the Chattanooga plant. The vote makes it the first foreign auto plant in the U.S. South that the union has ever organized.

"Fain has been able to pull off what some other union leaders have failed to do with big contract victories," Richard Bensinger, a veteran union organizer who helped lead the Starbucks union campaign and the former national organizing director of the AFL-CIO, told the Free Press. "He has dramatically pivoted from the strikes to organizing. Exciting. Workers I know at both plants say there's overwhelming support, and the politicians are more reticent this time around, I think, afraid of alienating so many Southern union supporters."

Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said the Detroit automakers played a role in the union's victory too.

“By having Ford, GM and Stellantis, after the ratification of the new contracts, immediately go to their stockholders and say, ‘It’s no big deal, we can still be very profitable,’ meant Chattanooga workers didn’t have to listen to the Republican governors who said that a union will shut them down," Wheaton said. "Ford, GM and Stellantis showed that (a rich contract) does not dramatically damage their bottom line and they can still afford to give stock buybacks, give their CEOs big paychecks, and now the workers can afford to buy groceries.”

More: Bill Ford on UAW strike: 'We can stop this now,' urges focus on nonunion automakers

An attempt to thwart the union

On Tuesday, just hours before the voting was set to start, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and five other Republican governors in Southern states with nonunion automakers issued a lengthy letter in an attempt to thwart a union at VW Chattanooga. It said they were "highly concerned" about the UAW's unionization campaign, which is "driven by misinformation and scare tactics."

"Companies have choices when it comes to where to invest and bring jobs and opportunity," the governors' letter argued. "We have worked tirelessly on behalf of our constituents to bring good-paying jobs to our states. These jobs have become part of the fabric of the automotive manufacturing industry. Unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs in jeopardy."

A Volkswagen employees works the assembly line at Volkswagen Chattanooga in Tennessee.
A Volkswagen employees works the assembly line at Volkswagen Chattanooga in Tennessee.

The letter did not dissuade workers at the VW plant because Friday’s win was “pretty clear cut that the opposition arguments made by some of the politicians weren’t winning the day,” said Peter Berg, a professor of employment relations and director of the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University.

But while the argument that workers would suffer under collective representation didn’t win the day at VW, Berg questions if it will have sway elsewhere.

The drive behind VW workers signing cards on the UAW's website seeking to join the union followed the UAW's contract wins from the Detroit Three. Besides the 25% raise, the union won members a cost-of-living-adjustment, the elimination of wage tiers and bonuses for retirees. Right after the UAW struck those deals, Nissan, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota and Volkswagen all offered raises of 9% to 14% to their U.S. workforces.

Democratic politicians were quick to celebrate the UAW's Tennessee victory.

President Joe Biden called out the Southern governors, saying in an official statement: "Let me be clear to the Republican governors that tried to undermine this vote: There is nothing to fear from American workers using their voice and their legal right to form a union if they so choose. In fact, the growing strength of unions over the last year has gone hand-in-hand with record small business and jobs growth alongside the longest stretch of low unemployment in more than 50 years."

Biden, whose reelection bid has been endorsed by the UAW, celebrated post-pandemic labor success, noting, "these union wins have helped raise wages and demonstrate once again that the middle class built America and that unions are still building and expanding the middle class for all workers."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tweeted that it was "a victory for all American workers."

Added Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, "The power of labor unions is growing, and the American labor movement is stronger than ever."

Charles Elson, founding director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, told the Free Press that unionizing Volkswagen helps the Detroit Three automakers by weakening foreign automakers' cost advantage — but will likely increase auto prices for consumers. While foreign automakers often pay union wages to deter union organizing, additional costs associated with health care and retirement and overall operations will increase, costs now absorbed by Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Stellantis, he said.

Growing union strength in the Deep South diminishes the ability of governors who recruit business with promises of nonunion shops, Elson said.

“A union always makes your plant more expensive because of the threat of shutdown and other issues,” he said. “Anytime workers are organized, it’s more difficult to run a business in a sense that you have an opposing force that doesn’t always agree. The competitive advantage of foreign automakers has lessened. The cost of the foreign car goes up, and that’s how foreign automakers compete. Getting a foreign car at a lower price is less likely. For the consumer, it’s not a good thing.”

The climate is right to organize now, “and much easier,” with an administration in Washington that is the most pro-labor in memory, Elson said.

Whether this is a bellwether for organizing, he didn’t know. The federal government, in many ways, has replaced unions when it comes to worker safety protections, he said. These days, unions focus on wages, hours and other benefits, said Elson, a longtime member of the American Association of University Professors union.

'Fain has broken the mold'

The win shatters the notion that unions can’t organize in the South, said labor expert Harley Shaiken, a professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley. It also “really lights up the sky in its ability to inspire” the workers at the dozen or so other nonunion automakers where the union is trying to organize, to seriously consider unionizing, he said.

For Fain, this victory solidifies his leadership. First, he delivered at the bargaining table winning big wage increases and other benefits with the Detroit carmakers and now he has organized where the union has never been able to organize before, Shaiken said.

UAW President Shawn Fain speaks during a Facebook livestream on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.
UAW President Shawn Fain speaks during a Facebook livestream on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

"Shawn Fain has broken the mold," Shaiken said. "He has done the impossible in quick order by putting in enormous energy and new approaches to work. Saying it can’t be done, he seems to interpret as 'we’ll do it.' "

Wheaton agreed saying Fain's charisma was not as effective as his use of data to support his demands.

“He is a dramatic improvement in terms of saying we’re not going to do things the old way, we’re going to do things the new way and also employ a great use of data in showing, here’s the profits they’re making and what you’re getting,” Wheaton said. “All of America is behind that. The ‘haves’ have plenty and they don’t need to have it all. I think this says a lot about him.”

The addition of some 4,300 workers to the union's roster is good, but what is more important is the standard it sets going forward to win more membership, Shaiken said.

"This is a small step to a single plant that sets a direction that can be transformative," Shaiken said.

A change for America

Bensinger called the victory a “pivotal moment in our nation's history, in that this finally marks the reversal of a 40-year decline in unions.”

Indeed, UAW membership is far below its 1979 peak of 1.5 million. The union currently counts almost 400,000 active members and 580,000 retired members. That decline, labor experts said, hurts the national economy even nonunionized workers.

“When we had strong unions and a large middle class, the auto industry was entirely unionized,” Bensinger said. “Over the past four decades, unionization of the industry sunk to less than 50%. With the unionization of the Southern auto plants, we are beginning the process of rebuilding the middle class. This is great news for our democracy.”

Bensinger said during the Starbucks campaign, he learned the new generation of workers believes in unions and recognizes that organizing is the only way their lives will change.

'I want a union, tell me what to do'

Renee Berry, 58, is pro-union. Berry's job at VW Chattanooga is to deliver vehicle parts to the assembly line. She’s worked for 14 years at the factory that now builds the ID4 electric SUV and the Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport SUVs. She said she voted “yes” to unionize because having had three surgeries since starting there, she wants improved plant safety. She also wants a pension, better health care and to not have to use paid time off days during mandatory plant shutdowns if she wants to get paid during those shutdown weeks.

Berry believes the only way to get those improvements is with a union. The UAW provided Berry to the Detroit Free Press for comment. Berry was part of the volunteer organizing committee and she helped staff the voting center. She said when she looked out at the lines this week, “All I could see in the line was red T-shirts in support of the union."

Renee Berry has worked at VW Chattanooga plant in Tennessee for 14 years. Berry said was part of the volunteer organizing committee at the plant and she voted “yes” for a union in 2014, 2019 and this year. She wants improved safety, a pension, health care and better paid time off guidelines and believes workers will only get those with a union.
Renee Berry has worked at VW Chattanooga plant in Tennessee for 14 years. Berry said was part of the volunteer organizing committee at the plant and she voted “yes” for a union in 2014, 2019 and this year. She wants improved safety, a pension, health care and better paid time off guidelines and believes workers will only get those with a union.

Still, having lived through the votes in 2014 and 2019 only to be disappointed at the loss, Berry knew to be cautiously optimistic.

"It’s a lot different this time," Berry told the Free Press. "Third time’s a charm. The people who were on the fence, the things that happened to us earlier, has happened to them now. So now … they can get on board. Now, they say, ‘I want a union. Tell me what I need to do.’ "

VW spokesman Michael Lowder addressed the PTO issues Berry raised, saying summer shutdown week usually occurs during the Fourth of July holiday. So employees would need to use only four PTO days because July 4 is a paid holiday. For the December holiday shutdown, he said the company pays for that time off as company holidays and no PTO is required.

"We understand that PTO is a significant issue and priority for employees. We want them to have work-life balance and are constantly looking for ways to bolster our benefits on this front," Lowder said. "We recently announced a policy change to increase emergency PTO days. Direct feedback from employees via the Engagement Committee helped inform this decision."

Berry spoke to the Free Press earlier in the evening, saying that if the union won the vote, she will “shed tears. It’s going to be emotional, but it’s going to happy.”

And if it fails, Berry said, "We are going to keep on trying. We’re not going to give up. Those who voted against it, something will happen to them to change their mind.”

Up next: Mercedes Benz

The workforce at VW Chattanooga was one of the first nonunion automakers in the country to launch its public campaign to unionize, with 30% of the workers at the plant signing the cards in December. But that didn't guarantee a win.

The UAW has a history of trying to organize but failing in the South, particularly at the Chattanooga plant, which is VW's only plant in the United States. In 2014, the union was confident it would win a vote at the VW plant because it had a majority who had signed cards in favor of a union.

But on Day One of a three-day vote, the Republican leadership of Tennessee mounted a campaign to vote no. The GOP's campaign worked, in part because the former mayor of Chattanooga insinuated that VW would not allocate future products to the plant if it unionized. In 2019, the UAW again narrowly lost a vote at the plant.

Still, MSU's Berg was not surprised that VW was first to vote and it passed, he said.

Up next will be the workforce at Mercedes-Benz plants in Alabama. Both Mercedes-Benz and the UAW agreed to an election, according to the National Labor Relations Board. The vote is set for May 13-17 at the Mercedes-Benz plants in Vance and Woodstock, Alabama.

The vote comes after what was said to be a supermajority of Mercedes-Benz employees at the plants filed a petition earlier this month with the board's Region 10 office in Atlanta seeking to represent about 5,200 production workers.

Fain last month told the Free Press he expects to organize at least one new automaker plant in the country this year, possibly more. Fain said all he needs is one plant to take it to a vote and win to provide the momentum to win more, he said.

Berg said, "Let’s see what happens with Mercedes."

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Contact Jamie L. LaReau: Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletterBecome a subscriber.

Free Press autowriter Phoebe Wall Howard contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: UAW scores win in Volkswagen Chattanooga plant unionization vote